In Rwanda, an estimated 860,000 children and young people have lost one or both parents from the 1994 genocide, HIV and AIDS, or poverty. The strain that this has placed on families is overwhelming. In 2012 there were 3,300 children living in 33 institutions, commonly known as orphanages, across the country. Hope and Homes for Children (HHC), an organization working to place vulnerable children in family-based care and prevent institutional care for children, is partnering with the Rwandan government, UNICEF, and other partners to transition children out of all 33 institutions and into loving, stable, safe families. As of December 31, 2014, the number of children in institutions decreased to 1,600. The next phase of the reform will address the situation of institutionalized children with disabilities and street children to ensure that they enjoy family life. Completing this process, called the National Strategy for Child Care Reform, would make Rwanda the first African country to be completely free of institutional care facilities for children. With this program come significant work and unique challenges.

In 2011, HHC began to transition the first institution to family care. When they started, they had a small group of 51 children and faced several challenges to finding familial connections. The caseworkers at HHC worked tirelessly to find families. Dr. Delia Pop, Director of Programs and Global Advocacy, said, “The first step is to find out what the circumstances were of the separation. What are the child’s memories? What happened? There is often very little information available yet they’ve discovered again and again that typically the child has a parent, sibling, grandparent, uncle or aunt. It is a minority of children who don’t have anyone. It is very tedious to find out details and many times the circumstances have changed. HHC is there to listen, sit down with parents, grandparents or family members and bring them up to speed on the story of their child or relative. That is the beginning of the journey.”

In one case a young girl had very little memory of her separation from her family. She remembered a kind man taking her to Kigali. She could describe the crossroad and market along with some descriptions including colors of the buildings. Even with such little information, the caseworkers were able to find her family and eventually reunite her with them. In addition to gathering information on the circumstances of the child’s separation, HHC looked at what the challenges where that led to her being placed in the institution. HHC caseworkers look outside the nucleus of the family and examine the community of close friends and neighbors. “The [caseworkers] don’t want to be demanding of information, but to just start a conversation and then later see if [families] have the means and if they are willing to begin the process of reunification with the child. Families are so diverse—single parents who have a new life, uncles and aunts, grandparents— and [reunification] does not happen overnight,” Dr. Pop said. They work to reconnect caregivers with the child, helping them deal with the guilt of the separation and to see the new life they can have.

Louise* was one mother whose road back to reunification was long and difficult. After her husband died, she was left with four children and very little means to provide for them. On the brink of starvation, she moved them to Kigali to find work, but unfortunately that work never came. She made the unimaginable decision to leave them to fend for themselves to go find work in Tanzania. While she was gone, the four children struggled to survive and eventually were put in an institution by an uncle without Louise’s knowledge. When she returned two months later, she was horrified to realize her children had been placed in an orphanage.

When Louise tried to visit them, the uncle warned her that if she tried to make contact with them, she could be put in prison, as it is against the law in Rwanda to abandon a child. She was desperate and didn’t know what to do until HHC reached out to her. The reconciliation with her children wasn’t easy and they felt hurt and abandoned by her. Their first meeting was full of sadness, bitterness, and anger. One of the children said, “You’re not our mother.” After a series of meetings facilitated by HHC to rebuild their relationship, the family was able to reconcile and grew closer over time. Eventually, the children were able to forgive and accept their mother and wanted to live with her again.

Unfortunately, they could not return home to Louise right away due to her poor living conditions. The HHC team worked to ensure that there would be a safe and stable living environment for her and her children and supported Louise in setting up a small business to help provide continual support for her family. Despite the many challenges Louise and her children faced to become a family again, HHC wants to make sure the reunification is visible to the community by celebrating the reunions. A story that was once one of pain is now a story of reconciliation. Dr. Pop said, “We celebrate! We are sure to make a big deal about kids going back. They were once invisible, but now we want them and their return to be visible.”

On May 13, 2015, the National Commission for Children (NCC) and HHC announced they had removed the last child from Rwanda’s oldest and largest orphanage—Orphelinat Noel de Nyundo. It was once home to over 500 children. The institution has now been closed, and children have been reunited with their extended families or placed in foster or adoptive homes or homes for young adults where they have been supported to live independently. When Mark and Caroline Cook started HHC in 1994, they focused on improving and investing in the living conditions for state-run orphanages and training childcare workers, especially in war-torn areas. As they began their work, they realized that to really transform the lives of children, they needed to place them in families. The Cooks explained, “When we asked the children we worked with what they really wanted, their responses were unanimous: they all craved a family and a home. We soon realized that even the best institutions were unable to offer the individual care, attention and stimulation a child needs to develop properly. By listening to children we learned it was within the security of a home and the love of a caring family that a child would truly flourish.” In Rwanda, this dream is becoming a reality.

*Name has been changed.